Towards an Ethics of Technology and Human Development

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One of the societal challenges that engineering in a global world faces is that of making technology work in the context of developing countries and poverty reduction, to make it truly it contribute to human development. This makes the relatively
  Towards an Ethics of Technology and Human Development Ilse Oosterlaken , Delft University of Technology / VU University Amsterdam,  Penultimate version. Forthcoming in: Engineering Ethics in a Globalized World  , eds. C. Murphy, P. Gardoni, E. Harris et al. Dordrecht: Springer Abstract : One of the societal challenges that engineering in a global world faces is that of making technology work in the context of developing countries and poverty reduction, to make it truly it contribute to human development. This makes the relatively young field of development ethics  potentially highly relevant to engineering, but unfortunately it has so far hardly addressed technology. To make its application to technology more than superficial, it is important to thoroughly explore its connections to engineering ethics, to ethics of technology, and even philosophy of technology more broadly. This claim is illustrated with the so- called ‘capability approach’, which is nowadays very popular within development ethics and which attaches central moral importance to individual human capabilities. The chapter discusses how insights from philosophy and ethics of technology are useful, among others, to better conceptualize the relation between technical artifacts and valuable human capabilities. In this way the chapter makes a small theoretical contribution towards an endeavor to create an ethics of ‘technology and human development.   Key words : development ethics, ethics of technology, capability approach, engineering ethics, design, socio-technical systems Introduction One of the challenges that engineering in a globalized world faces is that of making technology work in a developing countries context. Some engineering programs have explicitly taken up this challenge. A prominent example is the “Humanitarian   Engineering” program at the Colorado School of Mines, which started in 2003. It “seeks to prepare engineering students for careers that will benefit the underserved international community” (Moskal et al. 2008). On its website it is explained that “in the past, engineers may have asked, ‘How do I generate electricity most efficiently?’ The humanitarian engineer asks, ‘How can I help to reduce poverty?’” Other, related reasons why some universities have started paying attention to ‘development’ within eng ineering curricula are that it is seen as an integral part of sustainability education (Boni and Perez-Foguet 2008), that it is one way to encourage a spirit of voluntary or social service amongst engineers (Passino 2009), and that it may help to cultivate engineers’ humanity and foster their cosmopolitan abilities (Boni, MacDonald, and Peris 2012). Another type of motive can be found at my own university, Delft Uni-versity of Technology. Its Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering has in the past decade sent dozens of students to the South for design projects. Both staff and students are inspired by the work of business scholars Prahalad and Hart, who identified a huge market and good business opportunities at the so- called ‘Base of the Pramid’ (BoP - referring to people living on less than a $1/day), with the promise that profit and poverty reduction can go hand-in-hand. Design projects are often done in collaboration with companies (Kandachar et al. 2011). The same starting point is present in the minor  “Entrepreneurship & Development” of the neighboring Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, a minor which is quite popular with Delft’s engineering students. In short, in our globalized world there are both economic and humanitarian reasons to prepare engineers for working in the context of developing countries, and some even speak of a “trend” in engineering education to do so (Vandersteen, Baillie, and Hall 2009). One important question then becomes what engineers need to learn in order to be successful in the global South. Robbins (2007) concludes from interviews with over 30 ‘Northern’ engineers with relevant experience that working in this context requires “reflexive engineers.” Such engineers, he says, differ in several ways from “traditional engineers.” He distinguishes nine, somewhat related, dimensions. One of these is that traditional engineers would take “designs” as their “conceptual starting point”, whereas reflexive engineers, equipped to work in developing countries, would focus on “soci o- technical systems” –  I will get back to this later on in the chapter. Another difference is that the “view of development” of traditional engineers would be “technology driven”, whereas reflexive engineers would take a “livelihoods based” perspective. Al though I support moving away from a fixation on technology, by instead asking to which development goals technology should contribute, I would like to note that the livelihoods approach is a quite specific take on development (see e.g. Zoomers 2008). Hence stimulating real reflexivity requires placing this, in turn, into broader critical debates about the ends and means of development. Such debates are taking place within development studies, but increasing also in a specialized sub-discipline called development ethics. In this chapter I won’t say much in particular about what sort of edu - cation the ‘humanitarian engineer’ requires, but my basic assumption is that development ethics should be an integral part of any such program - for which purpose standard textbooks on ethics for engineering students do not suffice. To make development ethics relevant to engineers, however, and to make its application to technology more than superficial, it is important to thoroughly explore its connections to engineering ethics, to ethics of technology, and even philosophy of technology more broadly. The result should arguably be an ethics of ‘technology and human development’ that acknowledges that both development and technology are value-laden, and that fruitful ethical reflection on the topic requires  –   contra Robbins’ statement - paying attention to both engineering design and socio-technical systems. This chapter makes a theoretical contribution towards such an en-deavor by firstly introducing development ethics. I will then argue that the time seems ripe for making more explicit connections between development ethics and ethics of technology. To illustrate how the two fields may benefit from each other, and how connections may be forged, I will discuss the application of the so-called ‘capability approach’ to technology. This approach has become very popular within development ethics, but only recently have scholars started to use it as a normative lens for looking at technology. The next section will theorize the technology  –  human capabilities relationship in some more depth, arguing that both the details of design and the socio-technical embedding of technical artifacts are relevant factors in the expansion of human capabilities. A case study of podcasting devices in Zimbabwe will be used as a brief illustration. I will end with some brief conclusions. A Brief Introduction to Development Ethics Development ethics studies the ends and means of development, and the responsibility of people and institutions for this process, from a distinct moral perspective. This can be either at local, national, regional or global level. A central question in development ethics of course concerns the meaning of ‘development’ itself, and the  normative evaluation of alternative understandings, models  and paths. A basic requirement for such critical thinking is abandoning the deterministic idea that societies can only develop in one universal way, which was popular in post-WWII development thin king and exemplified in e.g. Rostow’s famous five Stages of Economic Growth. Equating development to economic growth itself has, of course, also received much criticism over time  –  and some post-colonial activists and social critics, attacking this orthodox economic development thinking by proposing other development goals, could be considered as engaging in development ethics (Crocker 2008). Even if we would all agree that good development is ultimately about making people’s lives better, there is still a lot of disagreement possible on how this should be understood, and which values then come into play. Surely well-being is a prominent value, but even that can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. One subjective interpretation is e.g. that well-being equals happiness, so that development should promote whatever makes people happy. One objective interpretation is e.g. that promoting well-being means assuring that some universal human basic needs are met for everyone. Development ethics critically scrutinizes such interpretations, and investigates their moral justifications and implications. Another objective view on well-being, one which has become very influential in development ethics, is the ‘capability approach’ founded by economist Amartya Sen (1999) and p hilosopher Martha Nussbaum (2000). It conceptualizes well-being in terms of individual human capabilities - i.e. what a person is effectively able to do and be. Examples are the capability to be healthy, to get an education, to be part of a community, or to travel. Development is then defined as a process of expanding people’s set of such capabilities. One thing that makes this approach normative, is that it is first and foremost interested in valuable capabilities, those that are a constitutive part of flourishing human lives. Nussbaum has for example created a list of 10 such capabilities, and argues that justice requires that each and every person is brought up to at least a threshold level of these capabilities. Another value central in the capability approach is human agency. It considers the poor not as patients to be helped, but as active agents in changing their lives and their society. This is not merely a descriptive claim, but also a normative claim: people should be treated as full agents. An exte nsion of people’s capability set means an extension of the degree to which they are able to act as an agent. In defending this approach, capability scholars of course also criticize alternative views on development, mainly those focused too much on either subjective well-being, or on merely means to well-being, such as income and other resources. The problem with the latter is that these do not always, everywhere and for everyone translate into human capabilities, due to so-called personal, social and envir onmental “conversion factors.” A bicycle does, for example, not convert into a capability to travel for people with certain disabilities, women in Iran, or people living in deserts without paved roads. The capability approach draws attention to the fact of human diversity, or the pervasiveness of such differences. Human diversity is also acknowledged in a different way, namely that people have different views of the good life. Making sure that people have an extensive set of human capabilities means empowering people to realize the specific life they have reason to value. The philosophical work on the capability approach shows that development ethicists have paid a lot of attention to the overall normative foundations of development, and their justification. The capability approach has also led to a lot of empirical work, for example using the conceptual framework that it provides to assess the development level of countries, or to evaluate development projects. It could thus be taken to illustrate the interdisciplinary character of development ethics. One key theme in development ethics is furthermore the question of a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of development initiatives, both between groups in a society and between present and future generations. This is an ethical question that is salient, for example, in the many dam-related  settlement cases that can be found in developing countries (Gasper 2012). Furthermore, ethical dilemmas arise in both grass roots development initiatives and development policy when value conflicts occur, “between different people who have different values, or have different priorities even where there are shared basic values” (Dower 2008). The harmoniously sounding term ‘sustainable human development’, for example, ma y mask that concrete development initiatives increasing human well-being may be at the expense of biodiversity and other ecological aspects  –  and vice versa. And the gender norms of Western development organizations will often clash with those in male-dominated societies. Finally, there are also ethical questions concerning the responsibilities of various actors active within development endeavors, and what would count as virtues for development professionals (Crocker 2008). Many also consider a broad range of questions at an international scale, such as the global justice questions studied in e.g. political philosophy, to be part of development ethics. This includes questions such as: “why ought rich countries and/or rich individuals to give aid to help very poor people and/or countries? What is an acceptable basis for international trade and investment? Should crippling third world debt be cancelled?” (Dower 2008). One point of disagreement on scope is whether development ethics should focus on poor countries only, or also address deprivations and socio-economic change in overall affluent countries (Crocker 2008). Although development ethics draws on much older work from adja-cent intellectual traditions and philosophical disciplines, it is still relatively young as a distinguishable scholarly discipline - as indicated by on-going discussions about scope, rationale, boundaries, approach, leading ques-tions and so on (Dower 2008; Gasper 2012). It first became institutional-ized in 1984, with the establishment of IDEA, the International Develop-ment Ethics Association. Several historical sources, so Crocker (2008) explains, can be identified for development ethics as a separate discipline. The main pioneer in the 1960s/70s was development scholar Denis Goulet, who started reflecting on value issues that he perceived to be present in development practice and policy. Furthermore, in the 1970s Anglo-American philosophers started - stimulated by the writings of Peter Singer and others - discussing if we have any moral duty to provide famine relief. This philosophical engagement with poverty was, however, still quite abstract and limited in several ways. These and other sources, claims Crocker, have since then led to a scholarly field of development ethics that is interdisciplinary yet explicitly normative, empirically informed and context-sensitive. This is nicely illustrated by his chapter on subsequent changes in research and thinking concerning the ethics of hunger and famine relief (Crocker 2008). Prominent thinkers within development ethics, however, would still like to see even more ‘bottom - up’ or case -study inspired work within development ethics. This should lead to ethical methodologies, insights, principles and considerations that could more directly guide policy-makers and practitioners in making value-conscious decisions (Crocker 2008; Gasper 2012). The Gap between Development Ethics and Ethics of Technology The past section has given the reader an introduction into development ethics. As I assume that most readers of this book have at least a basic familiarity with ethics of technology, I won’t introduce this as extensively. Yet is it interesting to briefly reflect on its history, as some parallels can be drawn with development ethics. For a long time the dominant but implicit view of technology was instrumentalism: technology is a value-neutral means towards human ends. It is then not technology that invites ethical reflection, but merely the actions and values of people using technology. In the early 20th century philosophers started criticizing technology itself. These classic philosophers of technology saw ‘Technology’, however, as a monolithic phenomenon and an autonomous force, for  example arguing that it was alienating or subjugating everything to the value of efficiency. Their view was also one of technological determinism: we cannot influence the course of technological development, and new technology in turn fully determines how society develops. Contemporary ethics of technology has been made possible by a combination of three changes as compared to the situation just sketched, and this is where parallels can be drawn with development ethics. Firstly, it is nowadays widely believed that technologies tend to be non-neutral or value-laden and are thus themselves worth studying from an ethical perspective, although it should be noted that “the value - ladenness of technology can be construed in a host of different ways” (Franssen, Lokhorst, and Van de Poel 2009). Likewise, development ethics has arisen from a realization that the concept and practice development is thoroughly value-laden. Secondly, since the 1960s the idea of full-blown technological determinism has - under the influence of the new field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), which showed that technology and society continuously co-shape each other - gradually been abandoned. Contemporary ethics of technology is built on this recognition, implying that there are choices possible between better or worse technical alternatives, which makes room for ethical reflection. Likewise, development ethics only became possible when the idea of a unilinear and deterministic development process was abandoned. Thirdly, ever since the empirical turn in philosophy of technology (Kroes and Meijers 2000), the view is that technologies should be studied as concrete phenomena in concrete empirical contexts, with attention for the differences between them. This, of course, requires collaboration with the social sciences, and ethics of technology is thus highly interdisciplinary. Again, this is similar to the situ-ation in development ethic. To conclude: in the past three decades or so development ethics and ethics of technology have each evolved into recognizable disciplines which have  –  at least to some degree  –  become institutionalized; For each there are textbooks, courses, conferences, journals and associations. And the direction in which these young disciplines have matured, makes them quite compatible , and has paved the way for more and more systematic ethical reflection on ‘technology and development’ in the future. One could argue that there is currently, however, little explicit and recognizable overlap between these two disciplines. Overall, it seems, ethics of technology  –  and philosophy of technology more broadly - rarely addresses technology in the context of poverty reduction or development in the global South, whereas development ethics rarely discusses technology. There thus seems to exist a gap between both domains of applied ethics, so several sources indicate  –  although the evidence is fragmented and inconclusive. (Selinger 2007), for example, concludes that “philosophers of globalization” hardly discuss technological devices or systems, and even when they do “analysis is restricted to the outcomes or general features of technological practice. These high levels of abstraction allow [only] for general points about responsibility and well- being”, and not for an in -depth treatment of the role of technology (let alone engineers) in these issues. And unfortunately “philosophical analysis of emerging development issues involving technology transfer remains scarce” (Selinger 2009). The literature on global justice and development ethics, so I also concluded some years ago, at most mentions technology occasionally, in a superficial and simplistic way (Oosterlaken 2009). To my knowledge it is vice versa also the case that the development context is hardly discussed within the literature on ethics of technology. In engineering ethics, more specifically, work explicitly responding to the context of developing countries also seems scarce, although there are of course exceptions (see e.g. Schlossberger 1997; Harris 1998; Luegenbiehl 2010).
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